Ripped from the Headlines, 19th Century—and a Giveaway! @JMmystery

Jeanne Matthews is happy to announce the arrival of a new historical mystery, Devil by the Tail, scheduled for release in July 2021.  Jeanne has a yen for travel and a passion for mythology, which she works into her novels whenever she can.  Originally from Georgia, Jeanne lives in Washington State with her husband, a law professor, and a Norwich terrier named Jack Reacher.  Information about her books, including the Dinah Pelerin international series, can be found on her website.  

Crime was an important theme in newspapers of the 19th Century and a major source of profit, especially accounts of sensational murders.  The more lurid the headlines, the more papers were sold.  The murder of beautiful and virtuous young ladies proved enormously popular, the gorier the better.  The love-gone-wrong angle added still more sizzle – infidelity, jealousy, insanity.  Readers gobbled it up and demanded more.  Written in a florid, exaggerated style, these reports sought to involve the emotions and play upon a sense of outrage.  “Next to the feeling that must arise from the contemplation of so foul a crime, we give ourselves to sadness that this unfortunate innocent should be murdered in the most shocking manner.”  But even more titillating than the death of an innocent, the murder of an infamous “nymph of the night” transfixed the public and boosted newspaper sales through the roof.

The murder of the prostitute Helen Jewett in 1836 changed journalism forever and coverage of the killer’s trial created a frenzy of competition among the penny press.  Which paper had scored an interview with the accused’s alibi witness?  Which had acquired statements from the prosecution’s lineup of witnesses, most of whom worked in the same brothel as the victim?  The public’s insatiable appetite for news created the inspiration – and the template – for the modern-day tabloid.  When Helen’s murderer was acquitted, a fresh cycle of shock and sensation erupted.

Of course murder wasn’t the only thing that grabbed readers’ interest.  One of the biggest stories reported from old Chicago was the affaire d’amour between “Gentle” Annie Stafford, the city’s most flamboyant brothel keeper and Cap Hymen, who ran its most notorious gambling den.  Annie had a savage temper, a misty-eyed fondness for the poetry of Lord Byron, and a serious crush on Cap.  We can’t know how he fell short of her romantic expectations, but on September 23, 1866, she armed herself with a rawhide whip and stormed into his card house.  The crowd cleared out as she knocked Cap downstairs, dragged him into the street, and chased him for several blocks, cracking her whip and expressing her disappointment in colorful language.  A few weeks later they married.  The wedding, attended by everyone who was anyone in the world of prostitution and gambling, was lavishly covered in the press.  The papers described all the juicy details of the event while deploring the couple’s unholy doings in their “shadowy haunts of vice.”

Before writing Devil By The Tail, I read a good many newspaper articles from the 1800s.  One item about a man who choked his wife to death impressed me so much I used it to kick off the novel.  “The orgy of crime continues and this reporter’s pen must hasten to keep pace with the bloody track of the monster.”  The literary flourishes, the hyperbole, the speculations and moralistic riffs fascinated me.  I studied journalism in college and once entertained ambitions of becoming a star reporter.  That didn’t happen, but I liked the idea of introducing a reporter into my new novel.  I invented a scandal-mongering news hound, a character prone to embellishments and distortions, someone whose business it is to stir public sentiment regardless of the havoc he might cause.  A bride slain by a jealous rival is grist for his mill.  As my two detectives, Garnick and Paschal, conduct their investigation, this muckraker complicates their efforts at every turn – not only poisoning public opinion against their client, but delving into the private lives of the detectives, as well.

There’s a wonderful quote in an 1866 detective novel, The Dead Letter by Metta Fuller Victor, and I couldn’t resist including it as the epigraph for Devil By The Tail.  “The morning papers had heralded the melancholy and mysterious murder through the city…thousands of persons had already marveled over the boldness and success, the silence and suddenness with which the deed was done, leaving not a clue by which to trace the perpetrator.  The public mind was busy with conjecture as to the motive for the crime – and it is not in the nature of a daily paper to neglect such opportunities for turning an honest penny.”

There has always been a morbid fascination with murder – a hunger for the heinous.  If it bleeds, it leads and sex sells.  This was as true in the 19th Century as it is today.  But the breathless, histrionic style of those early accounts “ripped from the headlines” makes murder sound simultaneously more horrible and more riveting.


Two unedited author review copies of Devil by the Tail are available for give away to readers who comment on this post; the winning names will be drawn on the evening of Monday, June 28th.  And if you don’t win the drawing, the book remains available for pre-order from the publisher at a 30% discount until its release in mid-July.

8 thoughts on “Ripped from the Headlines, 19th Century—and a Giveaway! @JMmystery

  1. Your book looks fascinating! I love this time period and have set my Eidola Project series in this era as well. Congrats on it’s forthcoming
    release! I look forward to reading it!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I truly love the quote from The Dead Letter, and how the press shouldn’t neglect turning a lurid murder into an “honest penny.” Today’s press just goes with the mantra “If it bleeds it leads!” No excuses, no regrets.

    I’m really looking forward to reading Devil by the Tail, Jeanne.

    Liked by 2 people

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